Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning During the Winter Months

During last year’s winter storm that wreaked havoc across the Greater Houston area, thousands of people lost power and were forced to look for alternative ways to stay warm. Some brought charcoal grills in their homes, others turned on their ovens and left the door open, while others sat in their cars in a closed garage with the heat on. Many of these individuals suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. Most survived, but tragically, some did not.

The problem was so severe last February that Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center saw more cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in one day than it usually sees in one year. More than 10 people died and nearly 1,500 people across the state of Texas went to the emergency room or an urgent care clinic to seek treatment. Children made up more than 40 percent of the cases.   

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that often goes undetected unless there is a carbon monoxide detector installed in the home. It is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned, so it’s important to never use a generator, grill, camp stove, or any other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside the home, according to the CDC. The poisoning occurs when there is too much carbon monoxide in the air and it replaces the oxygen in the red blood cells. The lack of oxygen can cause brain, heart and kidney damage, and in the most severe cases, death.

According to Dr. Samuel Prater, medical director of Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center Emergency Department and an associate professor in the Department Of Emergency Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, it’s imperative to get outside in fresh air quickly if you think you have carbon monoxide poisoning and then call 9-1-1.  Some symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Headache
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

“If you are going to use a generator to help heat your home, make sure it is at least 20 feet away from the window, preferably in the garage with the door open,” Prater said. “Also, never bring a charcoal grill inside the home, and never sit in your car in the garage with the engine running and the door closed.”

Prater added that it’s important to install carbon monoxide detectors in your home and always check the batteries at least twice a year. He advised to put one in the hall near each sleeping area. Never use an oven to heat your home, only use fuel-burning space heaters in a well-ventilated area when someone is awake to monitor them, and make sure all vents and chimneys are cleaned and unblocked. If carbon monoxide was detected in your home, make sure any and all repairs are made before living in the house again. 

“Unborn babies, children, the elderly and individuals with chronic heart disease are at very high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning,” Prater said. “Carbon monoxide poisoning can be avoided with a little preparation before a bitter cold event occurs.”

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Ali Vise